Magdiel "Fonzi" Alfonso meticulously sprinkled a white plaster mixture over the clay bust of Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Sgt. Jose Lopez before carefully covering it with a fiber for added protection. The mold will go through a series of processes before it shapes about 200 pounds of bronze into a statue.
That's when Alfonso and a team of other artists at The University of Texas-Pan American's art foundry will need to take serious precautions, as the bronze being poured into the mold can reach 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
"It feels like you have a hot iron on your skin," Alfonso, who graduated from UTPA earlier this month with a bachelor of fine arts degree and continues to work with the University's art department, said about getting close to the foundry.
The artists wear protective clothing to avoid injury, but the foundry's supplies were limited - until now.
The Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department donated six sets of protective helmets, jackets, pants and gloves to the foundry to keep artists safe when working with the molten metal.
Shawn Snider, the fire department's chief, said the gear is no longer useable by firefighters to enter burning buildings, but is safe for the artists to use when working in the foundry.
"I think for the intended purpose here, which is to protect students who are learning a trade and a craft in a university setting, it is more than appropriate and is very good use of equipment that otherwise would be destroyed," Snider said. "I'm really happy they have a use for it."
This is the first time the department has donated old gear to the University, but it has given items to volunteer firefighters in Mexico before, Snider said.
The art department has some fire-resistant clothing, but those articles of clothing are old. The fire department's old gear is much more effective in protecting the artists and students when they are pouring the bronze into molds, said Douglas Clark, a master sculptor and lecturer in UTPA's art department.
"This is much newer and much more comfortable," Clark said. "It'll be a great help to us."
It takes between three and five people to prepare and pour bronze into molds for sculptures, Clark said. The department's donation will provide protection for more people.
All students are required to view safety videos and perform a "dress rehearsal" of all the equipment before working with the bronze or other metal, Clark said. Since opening a year and a half ago, the UTPA art foundry has created several sculptures for area birding centers, municipal centers and local and state cemeteries, as well as produced about 100 student sculptures, Clark said.